While there are certainly a multitude of tangled, opposing and inexplicably linked emotions running through my head about our experience at Pine Ridge, one thing is clear to me: as people from a very different society and way of life, we have much to learn from the Lakota people and their traditions.
At first glance, one might think the opposite. Because the Lakota have such low life spans and income and such high unemployment, alcoholism and substance abuse, it’s easy to say that they are they ones who have much to learn from us, the ones who live longer, are richer and don’t drink as much. And while it is certain that a calculated exchange between the two cultures would be beneficial to both parties, there’s one aspect of their tradition that I think we significantly lack in our lives: the practice of “group therapy” arising from the sweat lodge.
The sweat lodge allows for people to open up in ways that are foreign to day-to-day interaction. It has the incredible power of raising everyone to the same, vulnerable state, both physically and mentally, allowing people to stop the detrimental comparisons, judgments and competitions that so often create debilitating levels of self-consciousness within a person’s psyche. When somebody is able stop worrying about what other people may or may not think about them, they can let go of their fears and share things in their life that they need help getting through. Whether it’s expressing how worried someone is about their sick family member, or how someone can’t get along with a person in their life that is very important to them, whatever problem or worry it may be, the sweat lodge is the time and the place to share it with the compassionate listeners, both the other individuals in the sweat lodge as well as the healing spirits.
Relief surfaces almost immediately when somebody is able to share what is bringing them down in life. This group therapy experience, the sharing of thoughts and allowing others to share the burden, sympathize and pray for you, is something that I definitely lack in my life and is definitely missing from our culture in the US. People are conditioned to sweep their problems under the doormat, avoiding confronting the things that need to be confronted, inhibiting deep reflection and healing.
There’s a giant stigma surrounding expressing personal fears and anxieties in the US. People are embarrassed to talk about their problems. They think that people will think less of them and that they are weak if they have problems. When you have people afraid of telling others what is draining them mentally, coupled with the fast-paced society that we live in in which there often isn’t even time in people’s schedules to confront their problems, we end up with a lot of miserable people. And often times, these feelings manifest in detrimental ways: random acts of aggression, depression or treating people you love in a way that they shouldn’t be treated.
If we had a platform to share, talk and feel (such as the Lakota have through the sweat lodge), and if we accepted this as a normal and necessary part of life, I think that we would be a lot happier.